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26-30 MARCH 2016
By Jason Boyce
By now the Champions of the Flyway (COTF) bird race is well known across birding circles worldwide and is fast becoming one of the most prestigious 24-hour bird races in the world. Majestic mountainous landscapes, the vast desert plains of the Negev, passionate and enthusiastic birders from across the globe, and a movement of birds like no other all culminate into a thing of beauty that is the Champions of the Flyway!
We, the South African/Birding Ecotours team, were to be the only southern hemisphere team to take part in this incredible bird race, for the second year running – a great honor! This year our team consisted of Jason Boyce, Trevor Hardaker, Dylan Vasapolli and Andy Walker. Trevor and Jason participated in the 2015 race and could offer some advice on how not to do things in 2016. The race, like many other birding races, involves scouting in the days prior to the race day and then a 24-hour race day, midnight to midnight. Teams will set out to record as many species as possible (birds can be recorded on call as well as on sight) during this 24-hour period. The Negev desert and everything south to Eilat is considered the ‘playing field’.
March 26 Team arrival and scouting Eilat, Israel
March 27 Scouting Eilat, Israel
March 28 Scouting Eilat, Israel
March 29 Race day Eilat, Israel
March 30 Closing ceremony Eilat, Israel
BUILDUP AND SCOUTING
Migration is an incredible natural phenomenon, and even after years and years of studying aspects of migration and witnessing bird migration over and over there will always be a sense of unpredictability about it! This is largely what brings about the excitement to birding in Israel – “Expect the unexpected”, as the catch phrase goes. Every year the teams make sure to arrive a little early so that they can begin preparations by visiting as many sites as they can within the playing field. Things can be very different from year to year – this was definitely evident to Trevor and Jason. We started off by checking out some of the sites in the North Negev, these included the famous Nitzana (best Macqueen’s Bustard site), Ezuz, Yeroham Lake, and Sde Boker. The northern region has some 30-35 species that you just can’t connect with in the south, and so it is recommended – by the Israeli “hotshots” – that doing both the north and the south on race day is a must!
Over the course of the next few days we visited almost every site that we knew about as well as a few new ones; the most noteworthy new site being the Se’ifim plains. These open plains situated to the north-west of Eilat in the mountains produced some excellent birds for us, including one of our most wanted, our logo species, Temminck’s Lark! Temminck’s Lark was hard to come by during the scouting days, and it was one of the species we ended up missing on race day.
Some of the other species that we recorded during the scouting days included the likes of Brown Booby, White-eyed Gull, Sandwich Tern, and Baltic Gull (L. f. fuscus, nominate Lesser Black-backed Gull, which are all treated as separate species for the COTF) all at North Beach. It was also incredible to see “migration in action” even among passerines, such as a Yellow Wagtail coming in off the Red Sea while we were sea watching!
Waders at K20 salt pans included Kentish Plover, Little and Common Ringed Plovers, Eurasian Curlew and Marsh Sandpipers, Common Redshank, Little Stint, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Greenshank, and Ruff. Other interesting finds during scouting were Red-necked Phalarope, Red-throated Pipit, many different subspecies of Yellow Wagtail, and wheatear species ranging from the migratory species, like Northern, Isabelline and Black-eared, to some of the resident species, such as Hooded, White-crowned, and Mourning. One of our team’s best finds during the scouting period was that of a female Cyprus Wheatear – a lifer for most of the Bandits.
Before we knew it race day was upon us – we were ready … sort of. Just after midnight on Tuesday morning, the 29th of March, we set off to see how many species we could get. We fiddled around Eilat for a while, trying to pick up some water birds and gulls – we managed to scope White-eyed Gull in the ambient light of Eilat city as well as pick up species like Little Ringed Plover and Western Reef Heron! By the time it got light enough to really get going, we were hovering around 30 species. We decided this year to do things from South to North and therefore only get to some of the northern hot-spots by 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. The Se’ífim plains produced a few good birds for us in the morning, such as Cream-colored Courser, Bar-tailed, Greater, Lesser Short-toed, and Bimaculated Larks, Hen Harrier, and Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush. A quick stop here and there to pick up some soaring birds, and we were back down to bird the Eilat surrounds and the k20 salt pans.
Birding was good, and between the salt pans, the date plantations at K20, and some other waterbird spots we added most occurring shorebirds, including Curlew Sandpiper and Dunlin, Water Pipit, various waterfowl, Collared Flycatcher, Tree Pipit, our 4th Eurasian Wryneck of the Day (!), Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Gull-billed Tern, Western Osprey, and Ferruginous Duck. Jason was in charge of making sure that we ran according to schedule, and, for the most part, we were pretty good at sticking to that plan. “C’mon lads, keep it up!” – these were the chants as we begun the long drive into the Negev!
We eventually made our way to the northern parts of the Negev – Sde Boker was particularly kind to us and produced almost all of our targets, and then some. The lookout area at the tomb of David Ben-Gurion held Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Lanner Falcon, Tristram’s Starling, Alpine Swift – and Nubian Ibex distractions! The surrounds produced some European species: European Greenfinch, European Robin, Common Blackbird, and then also Common and Thrush Nightingales, Common and Pallid Swifts, Eurasian Stone Curlew, Chukar Partridge, and European Turtle Dove. We were hoping to get to 150 Species before getting to Yeroham Lake (Which would be our northernmost site). Southern Grey Shrike and Eurasian Hoopoe were our 148th and 149th species, respectively, and that about 200 meters before the entrance to the lake. Yeroham Lake was great, and even though we only added another 10 to 15 odd species here it was certainly one of the highlights for us! Syrian Woodpecker played ball, as too did Sedge and Great Reed Warblers. Highlights at the lake were Cetti’s Warbler, two Spotted Crakes, and a female Little Crake. Of course we didn’t leave before notching up a ‘LEO’ (not Panthera leo, but rather a Long-eared Owl) calling away in some of the larger trees at around 8:00 p.m. On the long drive back news had filtered through of a Jack Snipe at Neot Smadar Sewage Ponds, and so the diminutive wader became the last bird that we added to our list for the day. What an incredible day, needless to say, we slept well!
The winning total this year (in the international race) was a seriously impressive 174 species, and the honors of the 2016 race go to the Arctic Redpolls from Finland, a huge congratulations to them! Second place managed 171 and third managed 164. The Bandits managed to squeeze out 163 species this year, and we were rather proud of that achievement. It placed us 4th overall in the international race (missing out on 3rd place and a podium finish by just one species!). It’s a ‘young’ race, and teams are still in the process of figuring out the best way to tackle it. Trevor Hardaker put it this way: “Doing well in this competition is not just about knowing the birds – we have some reasonable experience with these, so that is not really a problem at all. It’s not even about knowing the various birding sites – we have now gained valuable experience over last year and this year as to which sites produce which species, etc. It really comes down to strategy (as with any big day), and we are slowly, but surely, getting our strategy fine-tuned for this race. Even after this year’s race, our team had some discussions about what we would change for the next one that could give us just a little bit more of an edge in the competition.”
At the risk of being a little cliché, the real winners are undoubtedly the migrant birds! We received 13 Donations on race day itself, with a total of 188 donations during the course of the fund raising efforts. Our initial target set was to raise £3 000, and with your incredible generosity we managed to more than double that and raise £6 763.53 (roughly US$ 9 600 and more than R142 000 for our South African friends!). Over US$70 000 has now been raised in total this year – which is a COTF record! This money goes to the Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOC), which now has a lot of work to do but some amazing backing to do it with. Congratulations, guys!!
One of the differences between the COTF and many other bird races across the world is the sharing of information. Information is shared freely and relentlessly throughout the race day, and this of course brings a whole new dynamic to the race! The team that is the most helpful, shares the most information, creates the most awareness, and makes the most noise about COTF are crowned the Knights of the Flyway. This year’s Knights went to the Way-off Coursers from the United States! The Way-off Coursers weren’t done there when it comes to awards; they were also the team that managed to raise the most money of all teams and so were crowned the Guardians of the Flyway as well.
On behalf of the Bandits, Birding Ecotours, South Africa, and, of course, the Hellenic Ornithological Society an extremely huge THANK YOU to all who have contributed in any way to this cause! There is still a massive amount of work to be done, so let us not stop here – onward and upward, as they say!
To our sponsors: “While we may not have been crowned with the award for the most money raised, you are ALL Guardians of the Flyway in our eyes! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” – Trevor
Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.